Onboard communication tools are an important aspect of safe boating. Photo by C. Ryan McVinney for YachtWorld.
Communications equipment on boats is primarily for safety – calling for towing assistance or requesting help/rescue in an emergency. The type, sophistication and cost of these tools vary so it’s important to match the level of equipment to the type of boating you do. Lake boating on a towboat has different needs than offshore cruising and although you don’t want to be caught unprepared, you also don’t want to overspend on something you don’t need.
The boating sweet spot is trailerable boats up to 40 feet so that’s where we’ll focus, especially for inshore or near-shore boating. However, we’ll give a nod to equipment for more advanced needs farther down.
In this day and age many small boat owners may not see the need for a VHF radio (very high frequency radio) when they already have a cell phone onboard. However, relying on a phone while fishing offshore or cruising in out-of-the-way coves may not always be safe, not to mention that cellphones are poor swimmers. Safety is the key justification for having a VHF radio aboard but they’re so much more specific to boating communications than phones giving you a number of added key benefits.
VHF radios come in fixed-mount or handheld versions. Fixed VHFs usually have more features and up to 25 watts of power, which means they output signal farther (approximately 25 miles) especially with a remote antenna mounted up high.
Handhelds have 1 or 5-watt power output and can reach 3-8 miles when used 5-10 feet above the waterline. (Expect a battery life of 8-20 hours depending on use.) Handhelds have the benefit of being independent of your boat’s electrical system in case you lose power and they can be used in the dinghy while exploring or visiting other vessels. (Technically, you need a special license to use one ashore). Both fixed and handheld models offer boater-specific functionality that phones just don’t have.
Here are seven ways a VHF radio improves on cellphone communications and how one may help you stay in touch or even save your life.
#1 – Connectivity
VHFs work on line-of-sight so they don’t perform well around corners and behind islands but they do have a greater reach across open water than cellphones and that’s important beyond three miles offshore. Channel 16 is dedicated to distress and hailing calls so if you run into trouble, you can connect automatically to maritime assistance agencies like the Coast Guard or a marine towing service. You can also stay connected to boating friends in the area all of whom can listen in on a conversation. You can share fishing tips or ask if anyone has spotted your kids running off with the dinghy. Keep in mind that your conversations on the radio aren’t private and that when you use a channel, others cannot use it so this isn’t for idle chitchat about last night’s game.
#2 – Digital Selective Calling (DSC)
The DSC feature (built into most VHF models) is a function that alerts boats in your area to your distress call. At the push of a button, DSC alerts not only authorities, but also boaters near you who are most likely to be able to render aid quickly due to their proximity. GPS-enabled, the DSC call allows others to pinpoint your location even if you’re unable to verbalize it.
#3 – Automatic Identification System (AIS)
AIS is a vessel traffic service (VTS) used for monitoring marine traffic in much the same way that airport air traffic control monitors aircraft. An AIS transponder broadcasts a ship’s information, including the ship’s name, port of origin, size, speed, heading and more, over VHF frequencies. Updated constantly, this information can be easily viewed by any other vessel, bridge or marina equipped with a designated AIS unit, as well as on computers, smartphones and other mobile devices connected to the internet. AIS is the preeminent collision avoidance system on the water. Some VHF radios that are AIS-enabled allow you to track these boats and that comes in handy in low visibility conditions like fog or nighttime.
#4 – Weather Alerts and Forecasts
You can receive real-time NOAA and SAME alerts for upcoming weather and general weather forecasts usually found on VHF channels 1, 2 and 3. Some radios have up to 10 weather channels. If you’re out of cell range, a good weather forecast can make the difference between a great day of fishing and an ordeal.
#5 – Weatherproofing
Cellphones don’t like water and they don’t float. However, VHF radios are built to take rain, splashes and in serious cases, even a dunking. Most fixed mount radios are waterproof to certain standards including IPX 6 (splash-proof), IPX 7 (dunking to 1 meter) or IPX8 (fully immersed in more than 1 meter). This makes them ideal for mounting under a T-top or on a center console dash and some handhelds float so if you lose you grip on one, you can circle back and pick it up.
#6 – Affordability
Today’s VHFs (both handheld and fixed mount) are also sleeker so they don’t eat up a lot of dash or pocket space and they go easy on the wallet. Value model handhelds start below $100 and fixed mount models run $130-$800 depending on features.
#7 – Warranty
Finally, most radios come with a 3-year standard warranty. Try getting that from Apple.
Let’s face it, we all have them and most of us spend probably far too long staring at them every day. Therefore the most compelling case for using a cellphone for your onboard communication device is that everyone onboard already has one. If you’re out wakesurfing and there’s an emergency aboard, your best chance of getting assistance will likely be via a phone call if within range. If surrounding boats aren’t equipped with VHFs, then it won’t help you to have a radio either.
Cellphones are also versatile. You can check weather, tides, and currents or use fishing and navigation boating apps. You can also take pictures, check in with others, and call to make reservations at a marina or dockside restaurant. Once out of range however, you may be out of luck.
Since cellphones are so tempting to use for things other than communication, it is key to bring along an extra batteries and chargers so you have juice if/when you need it. Most modern boats have USB connectors for charging but for older boats that have 12V sockets, bring an old school car adapter.
For more remote excursions and voyaging where there may not be many other boaters or cell coverage, satellite messengers are a good intermediate option.
Satellite messengers like the inReach, Iridium GO! or SPOT can send SOS messages plus some limited one and two-say messaging, depending on the model. You can communicate with people back home to say you’re ok and relay a GPS position. However, personal trackers or satellite messengers, work on subscription plans, usually paid monthly. They’re not considered first choice lifesaving devices although they can serve that purpose on a limited basis.
Satellite Phones (Sat Phones) & SSB Radios
For bluewater cruising or extended stays in remote locations, you’ll want satellite communications that are more versatile and can handle voice and data transmissions.
Satellite phones (often shortened to “Sat Phones”) from Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat are quite reliable and some can even connect to your laptop to transmit data such as email. They must have a subscription plan that can get pricey and calling for help will be a point-to-point communication rather than an activation of COSPASS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search and rescue (SAR), which in the U.S. is monitored by NOAA.
Single Sideband radio (SSB)
SSB radios are used by distance cruisers for regular as well as emergency communications. Their greatest advantage for fleets or cruisers is that you can participate on nets of multiple users you can learn about weather, good provisioning spots, or problem areas to avo. With SSB, a rescue may be launched by a nearby vessel that was listening in rather than the Coast Guard thousands of miles away. Unlike HAM radio, SSB doesn’t require a license to use but it can take some training as it isn’t always intuitive unlike a satellite phone that is fairly straight forward.
EPIRBs & Personal Locator Beacons
Finally, we have dedicated safety survival devices for offshore work. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) help locate a vessel or crewmember in distress. The signal is then transmitted to the nearest earth station, which contacts a local Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) or SAR agency.
Registration is free and there is no subscription or annual fee. EPIRBs operate on 406 MHz, are waterproof, float and some even have a built in GPS, making them GEPIRBs. They are registered to the vessel.
A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small radio beacon that initiates a search and rescue effort if activated and they’re registered to a person. PLBs work on either a 406MHz frequency, 121.5MHz, VHF DSC and/or AIS and there are a number of manufacturers so you’ll see brands like ACR, Kannad, McMurdo and OceanSignal. These units are waterproof and purpose-designed to save your life so don’t confuse them with a smartphone that won’t be much good if you go overboard or the boat sinks.
PLBs are designed to attach to your clothing or PFD so they’re always with you and ready to work, which is good since accidents don’t happen on schedule. If you’re in the water with an activated PLB, try to keep it above the surface and pointing at the sky. Don’t turn off your PLB to save battery life. This can interfere with SAR efforts.
Both EPIRBs and PLBs come with a long-lasting lithium battery that remains dormant until activated. Once in use, batteries are generally good for 24 hours of operation in colder temperatures but may last 5-6 hours longer in milder climates. Expect to pay around $1,000 for an EPIRB and $250-$500 for a PLB, the latter of which can be used in both marine and backcountry applications.
The Bottom Line
For 90% of recreational boaters, a cellphone and VHF radio are all that’s required for both safety and effective communication. For the odd trek off the beaten path, a satellite messenger is good and for the few that venture far, the choices are many and reliable.